Making a difference via blogging

Paul Knoepfler, a UC-Davis cell biologist, runs a very active blog in which he discusses the science of stem cells. One of his recurrent themes is strong criticism of clinics and physicians who provide unapproved stem cell “treatments” to patients, sometimes with fatal side effects. He reflects on the importance of blogging for him as a researcher: “The Blob versus the blog: arguing how social media is changing science”.

My main point of this line of discussion is that I cant think of how I could have made a difference in the area of dubious stem cell treatments without this blog. Its become a powerful tool for good and I take that very seriously.
More broadly I also discuss on my blog key issues in science that are important but are rarely discussed because they are awkward issues or taboo areas. Mainstream journals are frankly too wimpy to ever allow discussions of such touchy issues, but such issues do indeed need to be talked about.

Knoepfler famously described his start in blogging in a Nature editorial last year: “My year as a stem-cell blogger”.

The battle against the cancer was the most difficult of my life and I still worry that it may come back. But the experience also had positive effects. For one, I still missed The Niche, and assumed that others did too. Once I recovered, I found the courage to start a replacement. After all, how hard can blogging be when compared with facing cancer? A year on, it has been a remarkable experience.

He describes some of the private “concerns” expressed by colleagues, worrying for the future of his funding. What can I say? People have often expressed the same concerns to me. I cannot claim, as Knoepfler does, that these concerns have been empty. On the contrary, some of my grant reviews have made it clear that blogging has worked against me in funding applications. Funding rates are so low that I will never know whether this has scuttled applications or whether they would have been rejected anyway, and so I don’t let the naysayers bother me. But clearly we need to keep working to change the climate.